Thursday, July 02, 2009

[dilemma for the day] new series, part two

Sorry about the quick cut and paste 'art' but you'll get the idea below

High in the Swiss Alps, clinging to the mountainside, is the little village of Leichen, spa resort for the rich and famous but for one week only, the venue for a most extraordinary Middle-East conference.

Key to this conference is Professor Samuel O. Lution, a bookworm who's come up with a simple and yet workable solution to the crisis and so far, all leaders have tentatively accepted his package but he is due to expound on it on the second last day of the conference.

The day before the plenary session, a small group is invited to visit the nearby Golden Caves, spectacular in the light effects but also a little dangerous, as events prove. At one point of the tour, the ledge on which four of the visitors are standing suddenly breaks away, slides over the edge but is halted by a ragged stalagmite in such a way that the four, in their current positions, have the fragment evenly balanced.

Did I say four people? Well, actually, one of them is Francine Dubois, a Parisienne philanthropist and peace fighter and with her, in her arms, is her baby Michelle. Also present is Che Araveug, a South American agent-provocateur, whose purpose at the conference is an unknown factor. The third is one of the most famous singers in the world, one who has brought countless people pleasure through her warbling - Anno Dam and the fourth is Professor Lution.

Search and Rescue immediately size the situation up and realize the only way of lifting anyone to safety is to fire an explosive piton into the stalagtite hanging above the ledge and they estimate that it will take a maximum 150kg without pulling free or pulling the rock away. This means that two and two only can be rescued, along with the baby.

If they lift the two on the left, those on the right will tip and die in the cavern below. If the two on the right are lifted to safety, the two on the left [with the baby] are killed. If the others attempt to move up to balance the ledge, it will crack and they'll plunge to their deaths below. If the two in the middle are saved, the two on the outer edge might still balance but it's not possible to save the outer two because of the danger to the middle two as they would go up.

Dam's people immediately offer the authorities $1.2 billion towards the peace effort as the professor was about to outline and now show half of that money upfront. The professor's ideas are fairly well surmised already. Araveug's gang immediately show the authorities guarantees that no longer will they not blow up the conference, which they'd planned to do but they will also return the kidnapped Israeli and Palestinian leader unharmed and undertake not to do anything to harm the peace process for the period of three months ... if the authorities willl rescue Araveug, that is.

No one comes forward on behalf of the mother, an ordinary citizen beyond her philanthropic work and she resigns herself to the fact that someone important will be rescued and will take her baby to safety. Naturally, people come forward to insist the professor is one of the two saved but he himself, from the rock, loudly dismisses that and says he can give the speech from the rock, which has already begun to crumble.

The trouble is, all sides in the conflict are only at peace temporarily on the strength of his presence. Who knows what will happen if he dies?

The head of S&R, the UN Secretary-General [at the conference] and you yourself are selected to make the decision on who will be saved. The rock is beginning to crumble badly now and it's estimated that they have fifteen minutes left there before they all tumble to their deaths.

The explosive piton is fired, it 'takes' in the rock, the line is lowered.

Whom will you save?

[know your stately homes] part three of new series

1. In Nottinghamshire; this is one of the first castles built by William the Conqueror just after the battle of Hastings. The Castle was destroyed during the Civil War, but rebuilt soon after that as a Palace by the Duke of Newcastle. The Ducal Palace was gutted during the Reform Riots in 1831 by a large crowd who mashed or looted everything and finally set the Palace ablaze. The Castle remained as a blackened shell for almost 50 years until it was bought by Nottingham City and restored as the first Provincial Museum of fine Art which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1878. The Castle is today still a museum of art and history.

2. In Edinburgh, this place stands on the site of a monastery that was founded in 1128. In 1501 James IV cleared the ground close to the Abbey and built a Palace for himself and his bride, Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry VIII). Mary, Queen of Scots spent most of her turbulent life in the Palace - a dramatic and often tragic chapter in the history of the building. She married two of her husbands in the Abbey. Her private secretary David Rizzio was murdered in her personal rooms by a group led by her husband Lord Darnley, who believed she was having an affair with Rizzio. It is now the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II when she is in Scotland, and she is usually in residence for a few weeks in May and July each year. The rest of the year parts of it are usually open to visitors.

3. In Mid Wales, this one was originally built c.1200 by Welsh princes and was subsequently adapted and embellished since 1587 by generations of Herberts and Clives, who furnished the red sandstone castle with a wealth of fine paintings and furniture. It has been lived in almost continuously for over 700 years. The famous hanging terraces are the greatest surviving example of the Baroque garden in Britain, overhung with enormous clipped yews, shelters original lead statues as well as rare and tender plants. The castle and garden has been in the care of the National Trust since 1952, but the present Earl still lives in part of the building .

4. In Yorkshire stands this castle on a massive rock that rises sheer-sided, high above the North Sea. The site has been inhabited and fortified for nearly 3000 years. The Romans built a fortified signal station here, and the great castle was built here between 12th and 14th centuries. However, the castle was abandoned in the early 17th century but was reoccupied later to be a permanently garrisoned fortification. It was in 1914 shelled and badly damaged by German warships and has been gradually falling down the cliff into the sea ever since.

5. At Wick, Caithness, Scotland, the ruins of two castles stand next to each other: one the ancient seat of the Earls of Caithness, finished in 1495 on the site of an earlier Viking keep by William Sinclair, the 2nd Earl. In 1609, the 4th Earl extended the site by building a more luxurious castle adjoining. These two castles were separated by a rock cut ravine spanned by a collapsible wooden bridge. During the war between the Campbells of Glenorchy and the Sinclairs starting 1680 the castles were attacked with cannon, becoming uninhabitable as a result of the shelling. The Sinclairs moved their main seat to the Castle of Mey. In paintings from the 18th century, it is clear the main reason for the collapse of the Castles was due to a lack maintenance and the powerful winter storms.


Nottingham Castle, Holyrood, Powis Castle, Scarborough Castle, Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

[cancer] at any time, to anyone

As you do, I like to keep an eye on news from various countries I have a connection with.

In this context, I saw, yesterday, a news item that Melbourne FC President Jim Stynes was stepping down although it now appears he's 'temporarily stepping aside'.

To 99.9% of people reading this - eh? Jim who?

What has made me launch into print here is that Jim Stynes has made the discovery that he has cancer and it takes someone you've known and had affection for to really bring it home. Please indulge me here.

When I was gamesmaster/sportsmaster at a school in Australia, I phoned associations of many different sports to send someone out to demonstrate their sport in a series of visits. Jim Stynes represented the AFL and I'm proud to say that I've tackled him in a demo to the kids he was giving. He didn't know that tackling was my job in rugby and I didn't know how damned big and solid he was.

We once had a drink at the union bar at university and he came across as an extremely personable and genuine man. His performances on the playing field were always consistently good, sometimes great and he is rightly a legend downunder and back in his native Ireland, where he had been a top Gaelic footballer.

A short time back, having achieved all that, he discovered a polyp on his back. It wasn't just in one place.

Life is so cruel, so unfair. It's a bastard, in fact.

[weekend poll] tomorrow's groundbreaking edition

Love at first sight

Don't forget tomorrow's Politically Correct edition of the weekend 'sexiest' poll. Out mid-morning.

[how well educated are you] conclusions

Yesterday, I ran a test of ten questions which “It is fair to assume that any end of Year 10 child, of average ability and average standard, could have answered ... correctly" but immediately, I could attack myself on the very question in the heading - how well educated are you?

The assumption that not to know the answers to those questions indicates lack of education or the assumption that one should know the answers is by no means established as valid. One commenter wrote:

Just so you know, there is an enthusiastic reader of your blog who scored 3.5, although I will not reveal who that is. There is the alternate theory that if a little learning is a dangerous thing, a lot of learning is extemely dangerous.

I would agree and go further.

Whether anyone got 3.5, 9 or zero, it's only partly a reflection on that person. Every teacher knows of the kid who will always score low, whether by lack of interest or by a learning impairment [sometimes both] and that's one thing.

Then there is the sheer change in society, rendering learning in a classroom setting largely superfluous and with a new type of teacher today, frightened not to appear a 'good guy' in the kids' eyes, frightened to insist firmly, a victim herself/himself of the 'let it go' society, of the 'we don't need no edukashun'syndrome, where it is a badge of honour not to wish to learn.

Then there is the person who does want to learn but one or more of the above have prevented an education in these particular subjects.

We're not all on the same playing field here.

The clerk or executive in his/her office has more than enough knowledge, tech savvy and peripheral thinking to do well in his job. He comes home and watches tele, takes the family on holiday - what's the point of knowing the irrelevant stuff in those ten questions? He could equally drop ten questions on me and I'd score zero.

So, what is the point of this test?

It presupposes, in the way that a radio talkback programme quiz does, that there is a general base of knowledge we can reasonably expect to have been imparted by the child's age 16 - not only imparted but cut, sliced, diced and reinforced in such a way that it is largely retained by the vast majority of students.

A core knowledge, if you like.

It would vary from nation to nation but it's reasonable to suppose that there is an Anglo-Saxon core knowledge - such as to know how to do long division, to know basic trigonometry, to have a rough idea of the rivers in one's own country, to know most of the key kings and queens or presidents or for 1066 or 1776 to be a year you'd normally have heard about - that sort of thing.

Let's say you're an employer, looking for an IT project manager. You're not going to be demanding a 'rounded education' in the classics. You don't give a damn about that. So this 'rounded education' then becomes a measure of personal self-worth in yourself, of being able to hold one's head up.

Is that a valid reason to have that knowledge or conversely, is one justified in feeling sheepish and inadequate if one doesn't have it?

In the context of one's day to day life - there's no justification for feeling bad because the type of knowledge one possesses does not accord with a 'central data bank' of core knowledge. On the other hand, if most ejukated peepul seem to have such knowledge and it appears to be a benchmark, then it also appears desirable to aspire for.

Those without this core knowledge are more likely to argue for having a core knowledge base and those who know they've done poorly on the test might have quite persuasive alternative theories on education

The age you are is the education you received

The over 60s had a proscriptive education up to age 16 which was fairly universal in Britannia and its colonies.

For people 50ish and over, the chances were that the K to Year 10 were pretty similar worldwide, days when in primary, one still recited tables and did a set number of spellings each day but new educational theories were making their presence felt.

Those who are currently 40 something, you're into the generation changeover - Gen X - when the baby was thrown out with the bathwater and the cognitive was subordinated to process. These were the days of Graves and open plan etc. This is where the first serious gaps occurred and you can see that in Oxford and Longman texts today like the First Certificate material - such glaring errors riddle these texts that any older person would pick up.

Thirty-somethings. They've really been deprived of a core knowledge and any ability to do the ten questions is despite the system, not as a result of it. Or maybe they had an anachronistic private education or a good grant-maintained school. Their lack of solid grounding is seen in certain bloggers, even on my rolls, who are erudite on a subject but the overall grounding really shows its absence.

Twenty somethings - G-d help them.

The law of diminishing returns

The whole woeful situation began back with what are now retired curriculum developers and higher education specialists who deliberately and fashionably abandoned the cognitive and rote, the delights in knowledge for knowledge's sake and began the craze for specialization too early.

They trained teachers who then trained teachers who then trained teachers and each successive intake was a further cranking down of education, a dumbing down, supplemented by leftist ‘feelgood’ core material. An example was when it became unfashionable to chant tables and learn word lists, despite their known efficacy.

The benefits of these methods for self-discipline alone argue for their retention.

Any teacher training texts supporting the rigorous methodologies were discarded and new texts like 'Let Them Run a Little [Weigall] came in to vogue, promoting learning of spelling and grammar through reading, by no means sound methodology, in isolation, within a school setting. ‘Learner centred’ education became the catchcry with a jaundiced eye cast on alternative methods.

It was neither more nor less than experimentation with kids.

The crime these ‘educators’ are charged with is that, having been given a solid grounding themselves and being well-educated, they failed to pass it on to the children in their care in the 70s through to the 90s, on the grounds of the fashionable new methods and the perceived ‘brutality’ of the old.

Now it's coming full circle and they can look back on their handiwork and blame it on the parents, themselves victims of the dumbing down of everything from knowledge to the cessation of the unfashionable imposition of our historic moral code.

I’m also dumbed down

I came in on the tail end of the teaching of Latin and did two years before it was dropped. We began to study the classics [and many of us went on, in university, to approach them anew] but in terms of the system, they were dropped in my final school years.

Why? Why were they dropped? Why didn't my parents cry out about this?

Part of the answer is that parents tended to bow to the professional knowledge of the educator who had, unbeknowns to them, now embarked on this highly unsubstantiated new educational psychology, such as Piaget's early learning theories, to the exclusion of established research.

That's just an example. By virtue of my age, I'm less of a victim than someone 30ish today but the bottom line is that we have all suffered, to a greater or lesser extent, from our system. I would have liked to have had the full version of what could reasonably be presented to a 16 year old, instead of the curtailed version my educators decided was fashionable to give.

This fear that the the child can't bear up under the strain of the rigorous pursuit of knowledge does not stand up. In Russia, I saw a degree of knowledge transfer which was mindboggling and the kids did not seem the worse for wear [although they moaned at the time]. I've already blogged on the two Russians who came over to our school in 1996 and swept the board of all the prizes. Their level of self-discipline and the sheer volume of what they could retain was testimony to a system which has now gone the way of the west in 2009.

There IS a core knowledge. It varies, of course, according to era but a great deal of what constituted the finished person in late mediaeval times would still constitute part of the core in modern times if we could return to our end of war situation and reintroduce those texts, e.g. MacIver's First Aid in English adjunct. Though he was not without controversy himself, the overall effect, nonetheless, I would argue, would be to transform the individual to a point where one of the things he would not put up with is the appalling state of our governance and the idealistic nobbling of our current society.

The previous post to this, again, is here.

By the way, in the cartoon at the top of this post, can anyone see what is very, very wrong in the classroom arrangement?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

[how well educated are you] ten questions

The follow up post to this is here.

I've just read a caption to the above illustration on the net, urging: 'Let's change what happens in the classroom.' The article then went on to push for more multicultural awareness, less learning and less results oriented focus.

No, let's not. Let's instead rediscover a role for the teacher where he/she actually teaches and at the end of the process, the learner has actually learnt something.

There was a time, a few decades ago, when children up to Year 10 were actually well grounded across a range of subjects. After Year 10, of course, there was more or less specialization, depending on the Anglo-Saxon nation in question.

It is fair to assume that any end of Year 10 child, of average ability and average standard, could have answered these questions below correctly. How many can you answer without recourse to google?

1. Name one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, situated at Halicarnassus.

2. For what are the caves at Lascaux famous?

3. The Spanish used to carry gold in large ships from the Caribbean. What were these ships called?

4. Hallowe'en is the night before which holiday?

5. On which date is Michaelmas, also known as one of the quarter days?

6. What does this represent:

7. What is the formula for the volume of a sphere?

8. "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble." - (Act IV, Scene I) – which Shakespearean play?

9. I didn't wake up on time because I didn't hear the alarm clock. Using the key word woken, unchanged, fill in the gap in this sentence in no more than 5 words: If I'd heard the alarm clock…………………………on time.

10. If the formula for salt is NaCl, what is the chemical term it refers to?


The Tomb of Mausolus, prehistoric cave paintings, galleons, All Hallows Day or All Souls, September 29th, formula for the quadratic equation, V = (4/3)πR3, Macbeth, I would have woken up, sodium chloride

The follow up post to this is here.

[nyse corruption] simple - close the shutters

It's not often that little bits of hard evidence come through that 'Them' do control the money supply, therefore the world economy, therefore life on this planet:

In a move set to infuriate and send many Zero Hedge readers over the top, the NYSE has taken action to make sure that nobody will henceforth be able to keep track of the complete dominance that Goldman Sachs exerts over the New York Stock Exchange. This basically ends our weekly Program Trading updates disclosed every Thursday indicating that Goldman has singlehandedly captured all of NYSE's program trading.

Market Ticker comments:

The problem of course is that, at least on paper, market manipulation, irrespective of what form of parlor trick you choose to use, is a serious violation of the law. Of course these violations of the law have been ignored for so long that nobody seems to care any more, but the fact remains that should the public come to believe that the NYSE has turned into nothing more than a gigantic pump-and-dump scheme operated by a handful of banks trading between themselves with publicly-guaranteed funds the consequences could be catastrophic.

So rather than stop it, the NYSE is doing what all good robber barons do - they're obscuring the data so nobody can see it any more.

The corruption and intrusion of the EU over here, meanwhile, hardly needs cataloguing in this post. One bright aspect is e-boarders, which seems to have backfired on itself.

[wordless wednesday] captions please

[gambling ban in russia] connected to the sochi olympics


The first thing to remember about Russia is that the Russian mind is at once tortuous, simplistic and prone to sudden implementation of Russia wide legislation, a legacy of Soviet Times.

An example of the latter was when all foreign workers on extended registration were summarily booted out in 2007/8 and told they could come back later through the usual channels [that is, pay out huge money to embassy approved certifiers at three or four points in the process].

Another example was the tax stamps fiasco when someone in Moscow, seemingly after a sozzled night, slurred that Russian alcohol was better than the foreign muck, the price of a foreign bottle skyrocketed and within a week, supermarkets shelves from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok were free of foreign alcohol. This one lasted a few weeks but the pressure from the upper echelons of society, who very much like foreign liquid sustenance, saw the legislation collapse.

Now we see the banning of gambling across Russia, the closure of casinos and dens of vice, which, of course, will drive it underground because if there's a market for this type of thing, there's a market for this type of thing. The thinking though is a bit more tortuous than that.

The starting point is the Sochi Olympic Games of 2014. The Krasnodar region, a thousand kilometres south of Moscow, has long been the getaway retreat, the haven of the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers of Russian society and by association, it has drawn millions of other Russians as well over the years. Here is a brief profile of the mountainous terrain which looks out over the Black Sea, a sort of mecca for beach worshippers in summer.

Back to the gambling:

Under a 2007 law designed to curb gambling in major cities and boost economic growth in poorer regions, casinos and other gaming establishments are to be relocated from Moscow and other cities to four remote Russian centers - in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, Siberia, the Pacific coast and southern Russia - by July 1 this year.

"Our company is reluctant to move business to special areas in regions. Nobody feels like moving there, besides there is no infrastructure in those special zones, and nothing has been built there yet," Lavrenty Gubin from Storm International told RIA Novosti, adding that all the big industry players felt the same.

Cosmo girls, summer in Sochi

Gubin may feel that way but it does not accord with what is going on in the region. Huge tracts of land, huge areas are having infrastructure laid in these years now, for example, mobile phone services such as MTS:

The Krasnodar region is one of the most prominent federal districts in Russia in terms of economic development and growth. MTS is the leading mobile operator in the region with around four and a half million subscribers as of the second quarter of 2008. MTS is one of the biggest investors in the region, with plans to invest over seven billion roubles in the development of telecommunications infrastructure, including 3G networks, during 2008-2010.

As part of its investment program, MTS is planning to lay around 300km of fiber optic cable on the bed of the Black Sea to connect key cities on its shores. In addition, the Company will develop a Transcaucasian fiber optic network that will connect Krasnodar region with all the federal subjects of the Russian Federation in North Caucasus.

A few years back, I took my lady of the time to Sochi for my birthday and even without the infrastructure planned for today, it was still mightily impressive. The scenery is second to none, we stayed at the Radisson Lazurnaya, with swimming pool, I remember, looking out over the Black Sea, very good cuisine and excellent excursion deals which saw us hire a Volvo, with driver, for the day for some ridiculously low price and we went up into the mountains to Krasnaya Polyana and skied the day, with good equipment hire services, throwing in a couple of lessons for her, dining out then returning for a spot of shopping in Sochi.

On the way to the resort, we'd stopped at vendors of honey by the roadside and bought local produce, so the rural and rustic still existed in the middle of the flashier lifestyle. We couldn't help thinking that a few billion sunk into this area might see it rival any of the great resort areas of the world, e.g. Kitzbuhel.

When we returned and I waxed lyrical to a few Russians about it, they smiled and said yes, there will be great money found and put in - in the wrong places, in the wrong order and with no part coordinating with the other. That was the Russian way.

I'd like to think they'd learn from the way the west does its development and it seems the Russian government plans to learn from the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

They will learn, no doubt but will they learn everything they need to remember? And so Sochi is also mentioned in the same breath as the ban on gambling or rather, the redirection of gambling to the four regions. The Russians are leaving no stone unturned to get Sochi up and running and it does take something like this to get projects moving over there.

On the other hand, the deep cynicism of the average Russian sees a legacy of sustained, prohibitive price hikes after the event, precluding the average holiday to the area and anyway, we're in recession 2008-12, aren't we? Who will turn out to be correct?

James Higham spent twelve years, from 1996 to 2008, in the centre of Russia, where he was a Professor of English at a pedagogical university.

[two graphs] with no commentary